Occupiers petition City of Cape Town to lease circus school land in Observatory

Occupiers petition City of Cape Town to lease circus school land in Observatory
The clubhouse at the former South African National Circus School in Observatory, Cape Town. (Photo: GroundUp/ Ashraf Hendricks)

Occupiers at what used to be the South African National Circus School in Observatory are asking the City of Cape Town to lease them the land they’re living on. The City plans to use the land as a sports ground, saying it is unsuitable for residential purposes. 

Earlier this year, 30 people who’ve been living at 2 Willow St – at what used to be the South African National Circus School in the inner-city suburb of Observatory – marched against the City of Cape Town’s intention to evict them. Now the group has petitioned the City to allow them to lease the land.

In 2015 the City terminated the lease it had with Dimitri Slaverse, who founded the South African National Circus School. The lease was terminated because the city plans to use the land as a sports ground which will form part of the Hartleyvale sporting precinct.

“The land is required for sporting purposes, in order to enable more residents than is presently the case to access this scarce and valuable sport and recreational space,” said Belinda Walker, the mayoral committee member for Community Services and Special Projects. 

In 2016 Slaverse was illegally subletting the property. He was also accused of being violent towards people occupying the land.

In a statement this month, Zahid Badroodien, mayoral committee member for Community Services and Health, said: “This group [of people living on the land] has since grown and their activities have damaged the integrity of the land at this sporting space and has consequently impacted on the potential use of this space for years to come.”

In 2019 the City went to court to get an eviction order against the people still on the property. The matter will be heard again on 1 September.

Artist Shayne Taliona has been living at the circus for two years. He said if they were evicted from the circus he’d be homeless. 

The City has offered people at the circus alternative accommodation in Philippi, which is more than 20km from the city centre. 

“That’s absurd. How can they move us from here and put us that far?” asked Taliona., who said he would not go to Philippi.  “I’ll just live on the street.”

Moyo Uno, who also lives at the former circus site,  said they had raised their grievances with the City regarding their objections to moving to Philippi.

The 30 people who live on the land started the Willow Arts Collective (WAC), “an innovative community project based within the Hartleyvale Sports Precinct”. The petition reads: “The Willow Arts Collective aims to lease or purchase the City of Cape Town-owned property formerly known as the South African National Circus, and turn it into the first multi-use centre for heritage, arts, recreation and sustainable living in the Southern Suburbs.

The City has not yet responded to Willow Arts Collective’s petition, which by Tuesday 25 August had 1,520 signatures.

The Willow Arts Collective also aims to run a weekend farmers’ market, a garden restaurant providing brunch and lunch to Observatory residents and a one-of-a-kind ecologically sustainable co-living and co-working environment for current residents on the property.

Ntimi Ayuba Godfrey manages a flourishing fruit and vegetable garden on the old circus property. (File Photo: GroundUp/Ashraf Hendricks)

The Development Action Group, (DAG), an NGO that advocates for affordable housing, supported Willow Arts Collective’s petition. “If the City can lease land for golf courses, then they should be able to lease it for community-led initiatives,” said Aditya Kumar, the executive director of DAG.

Kumar was referring here to controversy over the leasing of public land for leisure purposes by the city.  Following protests and petitions, this week the City of Cape Town withdrew a notice of renewal of a 10-year lease on the 49-hectare King David Mowbray Golf Club for R11,500 per year.

Badroodien said the land the Willow Arts Collective wants to lease is next to the Liesbeek River, which means:

“It is not suitable for residential purposes, and it would be irresponsible of the City to condone the building of homes on this site.

“I acknowledge that there is a dire lack of housing opportunities, but we cannot sacrifice all open land for this need alone.” 

The Observatory Civic Association (OCA), which also supports Willow Arts Collective’s proposal to lease the land, agreed with Badroodien’s statement that there is a need for housing opportunities, “but this is not a project proposing housing opportunities, but a combined multi-use centre for heritage, arts, recreation and sustainable living,” said Leslie London, OCA’s chairperson. DM



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